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“God So Loved the World,” John 3:1-17

1There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, JesusOnCrossOverWorldunless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

      9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

      16“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (ESV)

 

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Perhaps the most “well-known” words of today’s Gospel reading are those of v16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Rightly so.

But such words, as truly expressive as they are of God’s love in Christ, can be easily misunderstood and misapplied, as if to suggest that man has to do something to keep from perishing, to suggest that man has to believe, and that such believing is within his own power to do so, or else he does not have eternal life.

Other errors applied to this text, though apart from the words of the text, include the idea that believing is only the beginning part or that faith in Christ alone is insufficient for salvation.  Something else is still needed other than simple faith. Something remains dependent upon us—what we do, how we live, for eternal life to be and remain ours.

As an example of this are the words of this “testimony” found in a Thrivent magazine article, without qualification and without correction:

“Even though I had been a Christian for many years, it was on a mission trip…that a friend reminded me that if I was a believer but didn’t include ‘service’ in that belief system, I wasn’t really living the way God wanted me to!…I know that simply believing in God isn’t enough.  We must be His servants…” (Thrivent, March 2017, p3).

Within Christianity, these and similar words are accepted as true, the idea that “believing” is not enough.

But “enough” for what?

That service to others is necessary, we wholeheartedly agree, as does Holy Scripture.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus says (Matthew 19:19||Leviticus 19:18).

St. Paul the apostle writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10, NKJ).

Service to neighbor, however, is not the main thing of the Christian faith and life, though it is not excluded from the life of the Christian.

Our Lord directs our attention to His Word, in which He says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NKJ).

If you want to do what God says, hear and believe Word.

But if such belief is in a god, generically, and not in God’s Son, Jesus, who died on the cross, that faith is not at all sufficient, because such a faith is a false faith and not at all that which saves.

If belief in God is such a faith that looks to something other than God’s mercy in Christ alone for help and salvation, even to one’s own service as completing faith, then, again, that faith is not godly faith through which is eternal life.

The faith that saves is that faith which does not at all believe in self or any other, but rests all hope in Jesus alone for forgiveness and only upon God’s mercy.

It is not our service to others that completes faith by which we are then saved, nor is it our love that makes faith sufficient for salvation.

It is God’s love in Christ alone by which you have your sins forgiven, God’s mercy, and heaven itself as your promised inheritance.

Only in God sending His Son and the Son being sent and lifted on the tree of death in crucifixion is your salvation.

God did, and does, so love the world.

God’s love is unconditional.

God’s love is not conditioned by the response to that love with which God so loves the world.

God’s love is not only for the believer and those who will believe.

For the worst of sinners and for the ungodly did God send His Son into the world.

“When we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6 NKJ).

“To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5 NKJ).

God’s love extends to all people, none excluded.

Such words, however, don’t make sense to sinful reason. They seem utter nonsense.

Who would give something for nothing in return?

Who would freely give a gift to someone only to have it rejected?

God’s kind of love for us sinners cannot be understood by sinful man.

“O love, how deep, how broad, how high, Beyond all thought and fantasy,

 That God, the Son of God, should take – Our mortal form for mortals’ sake.”

“For us by wickedness betrayed, For us, in crown of thorns arrayed,

He bore the shameful cross and death; For us He gave His dying breath.”

(LSB 544 “O Love, How Deep,” v1)

What is sin before God is not only that which others can see.

Sin before God includes also what others cannot see.

Sin before God includes not only the “big” sins, as we define them, but the “little” sins, too, those sins which perhaps we have little concern about, yet are still condemned by God, regardless of how we think of them.

Sin includes not only that which is known, but also that which remains hidden, even to ourselves.

Sin is not only an action.  It is a condition, which all people since the Fall have inherited.

God shows no partiality (i.e. Acts 10:34).

Before God, one sinner is just as guilty as the next.

The sin might look bigger when compared to another.

But before God, sin is sin. Even eating a forbidden fruit brings about eternal death, not because of the size of the violation (as we see it), but because of who the violation is against.

Adam and Eve were not cast out of Paradise for simply eating fruit.

They were cast out of Paradise for eating fruit that God had forbidden them to eat.

It was not the fruit that got them into trouble.

It was their disobedience God, their disbelief in His Word.

In addition to their being cast out, their disobedience, their unbelief, brought death and destruction into the world.

The consequences of their sin we, too, receive.

“Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12 NKJ).

“All mankind fell in Adam’s fall; One common sin infects us all.

From one to all the curse descends, And over all God’s wrath impends.

(LSB 562 “All Mankind Fell in Adam’s Fall, v1)

Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, and because of our own sin, we are all lumped together before God as sinners.

Some sins might be more obvious than others; other sins are more concealed and hidden (1 Timothy 5:24).

But for this world full of open and secret sinners, God sent His Son, because He so loved the world.

Because He so loved you!

What encouraging words these are!

You are in the world.

Therefore, has God sent His Son for you.

Because of Jesus, you know that the God who made heaven and earth loves you with an enduring love, an unconditional love, an everlasting love.

God’s love is yours, for Christ was lifted in death.

Your belief or unbelief cannot and does not change what Jesus has already done.

Christ already died and lives forevermore.

Lest there be those who hear this as license to sin, St. Paul writes, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”  “Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1-2, NKJ)

Rather, it means all the more that you try to resist temptation, are earnest in prayer, and seek all the more to do what pleases the Lord.

For absolute confidence of God’s love, however, look only to Christ, who says, “Whoever believes—Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

It is not in or by your progress, or lack thereof, that is either your encouragement or reason to despair.

Only see Christ, for in Him is your true and only hope and certainty before God.

There are many who say that God is a “God of love,” for so He is (1 John 4:8, 16).

But many of these do not believe in Jesus Christ.

They believe God to be a god who allows everything and anything, a god who is open to all kinds of different lifestyles, a god who allows all kinds of sins to continue, a god who is  tolerant of the worst kinds of sins, a god who does not condemn sin, a god who simply looks the other way, a god who pats on the back and says, “keep trying” and “just do your best, for that is all that I expect” (as you determine what that “best” is and what that “trying” means).

Such a god is a god of one’s own making and not the God of the Bible.

The God of the Bible says “no” to sin and condemns it.

The God of the Bible does not tolerate godlessness.

Rather does He promise sure punishment upon all who do not turn from their sinful ways and seek mercy, the mercy that is found only in the One whom the Father sent.

God gives you to believe His Son, His Son who gave Himself freely in sacrifice for the debt of your sin, the punishment for which you are not able to pay but by eternal death.

Jesus has truly paid that debt, by means of His death on the cross.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

Such is God’s love.

It is not by what you do or how good you are that have the certainty of God’s love for you in Christ.

True joy and peace does not come from you or from what you do, but from God, from God in and through Jesus Christ.

This Good News is not made known by the work of man.

It is not gotten to by man’s reason.

It is not rational according to human logic.

It is not deserved or merited.

The Good News of sins forgiven in Christ is the gift of God, revealed by Him through His Son.

By nature, we do not know this Good News of Jesus Christ.

We were born of the flesh, and being born of the flesh, we could not know, for “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14, NKJ).

But thanks be to God! “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

In the waters of Holy Baptism, God birthed you anew in the spirit.  Now, you are born from above, born-again, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13, NKJ).

“When the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:4-7, NKJ).

You are heirs of the kingdom—through faith in God’s Son.

You believe this, not because of you or because of your own choice, decision, or work, but because such faith is from the very God who gives it.

“Flesh and blood” neither reveal the wonderful works of God, nor the Savior (Matthew 16:17; 1 Corinthians 15:50).

It is the Giver, the “Father…who is in heaven,” that does (Matthew 16:17). Amen.

Praying-Hands-Stretched-CanvasHeavenly Father, because You so loved the world, because You so loved me, You sent Your 0nly-Begotten Son to die my death and to be my Savior. Give me faith to believe, for I am not able to believe without You creating the faith within me and sustaining that faith so given that I remain Yours. Amen.

 

 

Faith is God’s Work

 

“This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (Jn. 6:29 NKJ).

 

“Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12–13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers who imagine themselves wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God that he may work faith in you. Otherwise you will surely remain forever without faith, regardless of what you may think or do.” (Luther’s Works 35)

 

 

Doing and fulfilling the Law

 

“Accustom yourself, then, to this language, that doing the works of the law and fulfilling the law are two very different things. The work of the law is everything that one does, or can do, toward keeping the law of his own free will or by his own powers. But since in the midst of all these works and along with them there remains in the heart a dislike of the law and compulsion with respect to it, these works are all wasted and have no value. That is what St. Paul means in chapter 3[:20], when he says, “By works of the law will no man be justified in God’s sight.” Hence you see that the wranglers and sophists practice deception when they teach men to prepare themselves for grace by means of works. How can a man prepare himself for good by means of works, if he does good works only with aversion and unwillingness in his heart? How shall a work please God if it proceeds from a reluctant and resisting heart?

To fulfil the law, however, is to do its works with pleasure and love, to live a godly and good life of one’s own accord, without the compulsion of the law. This pleasure and love for the law is put into the heart by the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in chapter 5[:5]. But the Holy Spirit is not given except in, with, and by faith in Jesus Christ, as St. Paul says in the introduction. Faith, moreover, comes only through God’s Word or gospel, which preaches Christ, saying that he is God’s Son and a man, and has died and risen again for our sakes, as he says in chapters 3[:25]; 4[:25], and 10[:9].

So it happens that faith alone makes a person righteous and fulfils the law. For out of the merit of Christ it brings forth the Spirit. And the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be. Thus good works emerge from faith itself. That is what St. Paul means in chapter 3[:31]; after he has rejected the works of the law, it sounds as if he would overthrow the law by this faith. “No,” he says, “we uphold the law by faith”; that is, we fulfil it by faith.” (Luther’s Works 35)

 

 

Christian Perfection

 

“We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”

Gal. 2:15-16

 

This is Christian perfection: that we fear God honestly with our whole hearts, and yet have sincere confidence, faith, and trust that for Christ’s sake we have a gracious, merciful God; that we may and should ask and pray God for those things of which we have need, and confidently expect help from him in every affliction connected with our particular calling and station in life; and that meanwhile we do good works for others and diligently attend to our calling.”

Augsburg 27, on Monastic Vows, offers these words as contrast to those who took the taking of vows, in general, and of good works, in particular, as the means by which a Christian becomes perfect, holy, and acceptable to God. The article briefly details that monasticism, orginally, begain with good intentions, that of offering a means to study and learn God’s Word, but that in time, the practice became corrupt, as the teaching that monasticism surpassed even baptism was accepted as true.

The reformers, in their confession, which is also our own, declare that Christian perfection is not that we become perfect by making a vow, trying to keep the commandments, trying not to sin, or anything of ourselves. Changing who we are also doesn’t change our standing before God, as if we could change our standing before God.

We can’t.

Jesus says, “You will be perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Other passages reveal that such perfection is not something that we can do, earn, merit, or obtain. Perfection is not within us to achieve.

Yet, God still commands it.

This does not mean that you can then do it, that you can keep such a command as God wants it to be kept. Rather, it means that God is commanding the impossible, that you see your sin, and trust in Him who has fulfilled the commandment, each and every one, in your stead; that you trust in Him who fully paid the debt of judgment for your sin; and that you not trust yourself as you seek to keep the commandment, but trust in Jesus alone for your help and salvation.

In this, as the Reformers confessed, as do we, is Christian perfection, not that we trust at all in what we do, but trust in God our Savior, who gave His Son for us and through whom we live out our callings in the fear of God and in true faith. Amen.

God heals…the brokenhearted

He heals the brokenhearted And binds up their wounds.
Psalm 147:3, NKJ

 

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

God helps those who help themselvesGod doesn’t leave the brokenhearted to self-mend. God doesn’t leave the wounded to self-heal. Rather, the Lord God does the healing and the mending. He binds the wounds of the brokenhearted and heals them.

Note, though, that it is the brokenhearted and the wounded that the Lord heals and binds. Those not wounded and those not brokenhearted are whole and well. It is as Jesus had said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

Thus, if you are neither brokenhearted or wounded, you have no need of healing and binding. If you have no sin, you have no need of forgiveness and salvation. If you aren’t sick, you don’t need a doctor or medication. If you don’t need salvation, you don’t need Jesus.

But don’t go by what you perceive or by what you think. Don’t follow your own advice or your own self-diagnosis. If you do, you will be woefully wrong.

Jesus says, “Judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24). Determine how things are with you according to the Word of our Lord, who teaches that, “Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20).

TwoTablets
According to the Law of God (The Ten Commandments), you are not as God would have you be (i.e. Matthew 5:21-42; Romans 7; etc.). You are not as God commands you to be. And this is not because you don’t try. It is because you offend the Holy God by your transgressions. Though you may minimize your shortcomings before God, He certainly does not.

It is for this very reason that God the Father sent His only begotten Son (John 3:16), to save you from your sin, which is not little at all, for if it is, then Jesus is only a little Savior.

Thus does St. Paul write, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:8-10).

Even while we were sinners, Paul says, Christ died for us. He also states that even while we were enemies of God, we were reconciled to Him through the death of Jesus. This means that your justification before and your reconciliation with God is in no way dependent upon you (nor your decision or choice, for such you cannot make, Ephesians 2:1-2, 5). Rather, these are founded alone in Christ. Faith simply takes hold of what God has already declared and says, “Amen,” to what God has made known.

3CrossesYou don’t make yourself acceptable to God. So also, you don’t make yourself healthy and you don’t bind your own wounds. God does these, through His Son. He speaks to you His Word, and you stand forgiven. He absolves you of your sins, and you are absolved. He declares you righteous before Him, and so you are. He declares you whole and well, and so you are. All in Christ.

Take hold of Christ, therefore, and believe the Word of the Lord to you. As He calls you a sinner, don’t deny, but confess the Lord to know more than you (Psalm 19:12). As He says, “Believe,” don’t deny or reject as the godless and unbelievers do, but believe, according to His Word, that it is just as He says. As God speaks forgiveness to you in Christ, and justification, and reconciliation through Him who shed His holy blood, entrust yourself to these blessed words and our Lord who, in His mercy, raises you from the dead and gives you everlasting life. Doubt yourself, yes, but not God, who alone is faithful and true!

If you are brokenhearted because of your sin, and fear that the Lord’s kindness is not to you, cast away such thoughts, for it is to you that God speaks and heals with His kind and compassionate words. If you are wounded because of your own transgressions or those of others, and doubt the Lord’s care and keeping, forsake such thoughts and cling to Christ, who through His wounds not only cleanses you, but heals the scars and ensures you everlasting peace with God.

If you neither feel your sin, be brokenhearted, or recognize the extent of your troubles before God, trust what the Lord says. “There is a time for everything under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Times of overcast and clouds, as well as rain and troubles, even if they be minor, will come, as also, by God’s grace, times of sunshine and warmth. Circumstances vary in life, as you know, but God does not change, nor do His promises in Christ. Amen.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to believe your Word and promises, even if I don’t feel my sin and my need for you. Take care of me and keep me from doubting what you say. Give me firm faith in You that in any and all circumstances, I repent of my sin and entrust myself to You, my Great Physician and healer of body and soul. Amen.

Sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive

Heidelberg Disputation

Thesis 28

 

God is loveThe love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it…the love of God which lives in man loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive…Christ says: “For I came not to can the righteous, but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. (LW 31, Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)

Heidelberg Disputation

Rise Up and Build? Build what?

RU&BHave you seen advertisements like this before?  Some of the wording about the conference, which I recently received in my email, follows:

“Has God placed a vision on the heart of your church or Christian school to reach out in new ways and expand ministry opportunities to your community and beyond?”

“Is your facility limiting your ability to accomplish that vision?”

“If so, this seminar will encourage you to apply the determination and courage of Nehemiah and step out in faith.”

Quoted (in part) on their web page is Nehemiah 2:8, 18: “And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests…And they said, “Let us rise up and build”.

Since this conference advertisement quotes the Bible, it is necessary to try to understand how the passages used are to be understood according to their context in Scripture, and then compare the actual scriptural use of the passage with the how the words are used to raise interest in this conference, “Rise up.”

Very briefly, the Old Testament book of Nehemiah concerns the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s city walls and the reform (repentance) of the people of Jerusalem.  The city walls had been in disarray since the Babylonia Captivity, [1] and this demonstrated the neglect of the city where God’s temple was, neglect for the temple, and the state of affairs between God’s people and their Lord.  God had punished His wayward people by exile due to their apostasy and waywardness, yet by His grace, He would bring them again to Himself.

The words of Nehemiah 2 (v8), quoted above, refer to the request of Nehemiah to King Artaxerxes concerning materials and the building of the city walls (2:1-8).

The “Let us rise up and build” of verse 18 is the response of the city officials to Nehemiah after he had examined the condition of the city walls himself and said to them, “You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.” And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me” (v17-18).

Essential to note concerning Nehemiah’s motive and God’s gracious hand concerning the “building project” are both the report of Jerusalem and the people living there (Nehemiah 1:1-3) and Nehemiah’s response and prayer.

When Nehemiah heard the news about the condition of Jerusalem and the people, he “sat down and wept.”  He also “mourned and fasted and prayed.”  In his prayer, Nehemiah said:

“I pray, LORD God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; ‘but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.’ Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” (Nehemiah 1:5-11, NKJ)

Notice the bold face words in Nehemiah’s prayer?  These are telling, because Nehemiah is calling on God to do as He had promised.  He is calling on God to fulfill His Word of mercy (i.e. Leviticus 26 (40-45).  Additionally, and not at all to be ignored, is the humble and repentant heart of Nehemiah, demonstrated by his words.  He recalls why the people of God suffered exile and the reason for the city’s condition—because of their sinfulness (i.e. Leviticus 26 (14-39)).

Nehemiah confesses His sin to God, and the sin of Israel, and asks for God’s mercy and help. These are not at all to be ignored with reference to the passages, Nehemiah 2:8 and 18, quoted on the “Rise Up” conference website.  They draw attention to two essential elements, which, if removed, misapply scripture and attempt to make God’s Word say something which it in truth does not.

The two elements are just those stated: confession & repentance (faith), and the word & promise of God.  In his prayer and by his request, Nehemiah was seeking for the Lord to fulfill His Word.  He wasn’t asking for something that he simply wanted personally, dreamed up, or envisioned.  Rather, Nehemiah’s motive and prayer had as their basis, foundation, and directive the very Word of God.

This truth is an imperative that cannot be removed from any discussion (or conference) concerning any “vision of your heart,” reaching out “in new ways,” or “expanding ministry opportunities.”  Nor should the Bible be used to say something that it doesn’t.

This conference, “Rise up,” may already be suspect, at least from the questions raised, and in relation to the Scripture used.  In context, Nehemiah is not about his “vision,” “new ways,” or “expanding.”  Instead, Nehemiah seeks to do according to God’s mercy.  And initially, he rightly confesses his sin and the sins of God’s people.  He seeks God’s mercy concerning himself, God’s people, and the work that he desires to do.  Also, initially and throughout, God’s Word and promise alone guide Nehemiah.  He recalls God’s promise and Word, and directs God to do what He has already spoken and according to what He has already said.

In contrast, the questions used on the web site about the “Rise Up” conference direct, not to God and His Word, but to self.  The word, “vision,” remaining undefined, could mean anything, and though reference is made to God placing it, any such vision, if it is of God, finds its sole foundation in the Holy Scriptures.  Yet, reaching “out in new ways” and expanding “ministry opportunities” is not something that God has promised or commanded.  Rather, God would have His people not be ashamed of him and confess His name (not ashamed–2 Timothy 1:8; 1 Peter 3:15-16; 4:16-17; confess– Matthew 10:32-33; Romans 10:8-13; 15:9; 1 Timothy 6:12).  These characteristics have God’s approval, yet our “visions” do not.

Trust in God’s Word is what God calls us to be about doing (Psalm 37:3; Proverbs 3:5-6; John 6:29; 14:6).  Concerning “new ways” of reaching out, these might be new, but in the sense that God opens our blind eyes to His ways and work, that we make use of the time that He has given according to His Word and will (the latter we only know from the former) within the callings that He has already given (1 Corinthians 1:26; 7:20).

Similarly “expanding ministry opportunities” doesn’t have to do with us doing it, but God “opening the doors” (Colossians 4:3) for us and using us as He will.  The challenge, though, is that we don’t always believe, act, and do according to the will of our Lord, because of our sinfulness (Thus is the Christian always and constantly in the state of repentance, denying self, and turning to God for mercy in Christ, like Nehemiah before us).  Yet God continues to use us and work through us, too, according to His grace and mercy.

Additionally, St. Paul writes:

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-11).

That foundation and the building of which Paul speaks is not man’s doing, but God’s, and again, according to His Word (see Matthew 7:24-27), and not all apart from it or conditional on man and his ways.

As to the question about “your facility limiting your ability to accomplish” your “vision,” this too is founded on the precepts of man.  For one thing, man’s facilities are gifts of God, and to be used for His purposes, not ours.  And as mentioned before, “your” vision is to be tested only by and according to the Word.  Thus, if your “vision” is of God, then it’s not yours at all, but God’s.

The question, “Is your facility limiting your ability to accomplish that vision?” is the wrong question, as is the first, for it (and the other) places the emphasis on you, the sinner, and not on God the Giver and Savior.  It also assumes that any change can (and should?) be affected by you.  The questions do not call for repentance from sin (individual and corporate) and assume that any personal “vision” is already godly in nature and not all misdirected.

For these reasons, such a conference (see here for more information) may just be contrary to the very will of God for His people, for God calls His people and church to be faithful to Him and to His Word (Revelation 2:10, to the Church in Smyrna), and in doing so, will speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and preach His name:

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.’ Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25, NKJ)

Lastly, for the present, the intended result of the conference, “will encourage you to apply the determination and courage of Nehemiah and step out in faith,” also is misdirected.  First of all, the “determination and courage of Nehemiah” cannot be ours, because it was his.  Thus, the wording is at minimum, incorrect.  Secondly, who applies that which is of Nehemiah (the determination and courage)?  You do, not God.  And thirdly, the word faith is undefined.  Faith can mean any number of things, and correlated with “vision,” the word may not at all be that which Jesus and Paul speak of, that is, the God-given faith of Christianity according to the very Word of Holy Scripture.  Many, for example, speak of believing, yet such believing is not of God unless it be according God’s Word, centered on Jesus Christ.

Some will likely read this and consider these concerns about such a conference as miniscule and “making mountains out of mole hills.”  After all, shouldn’t Christians be about spreading the Gospel and “reaching people for Christ?”  Yes, indeed!  Yet the church doesn’t need such conferences to do this.  Instead, God calls His church to repent of her selfishness and to speak His truth, not according to our “vision,” but according to His Word, not only for herself, but for others, that they “be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).  This happens as God’s people, moved by God with repentant faith, believe, speak, and live according to His Word.

For the Sake of Christ’s Commission-Evangelism & Church Growth

The Not-So-Great Commission, IE1, 2011

The Not-So-Great Commission, IE2, 2011

VOCATION AND EVANGELISM.Pless


[1] Nehemiah 1:1-4: The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. It came to pass in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the citadel, that Hanani one of my brethren came with men from Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.” So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (NKJ)

The one thing necessary

Freedom of  a ChristianOne thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Christ says, John 11[:25], “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live”; and John 8[:36], “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”; and Matt. 4[:4], “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing.  On the other hand, there is no more terrible disaster with which the wrath of God can afflict men than a famine of the hearing of his Word, as he says in Amos [8:11]. Likewise there is no greater mercy than when he sends forth his Word, as we read in Psalm 107[:20]: “He sent forth his word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.” Nor was Christ sent into the world for any other ministry except that of the Word. Moreover, the entire spiritual estate—all the apostles, bishops, and priests—has been called and instituted only for the ministry of the Word. (LW 31, The Freedom of a Christian, 1520)

It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no works to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law. It is true that “the law is not laid down for the just” [I Tim. 1:9]. This is that Christian liberty, our faith, which does not induce us to live in idleness or wickedness but makes the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation. (LW 31, The Freedom of a Christian, 1520)

Free resources from Lutheran Press

Preaching and Hearing the Word of God

The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; And he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat?” says the LORD.

Jeremiah 23:28

Faithfulness to the Lord in preaching is a hard thing!  It is a hard thing because many will grumble.  Many will complain.  Many will grow tired and turn away from that which gives life.  The many do this because the Word of God does not “fit” them.  The Word of the Lord does not “do” for them what they think it should.  The Word of the Lord, essentially, is not to their own liking, independent of the outer dressing in which it is delivered.  It does not scratch the itchy conscience as it wants to be scratched.  It does not tell one troubled by sin that things are not that bad, that things will only get better, and that happiness is just around the corner.

The Word of the Lord preached faithfully speaks the reality of how things really are.  The Law of God does not mince words.  It does not pull back the punches.  Like the doctor who speaks the truth about one’s condition, so the Law reveals the hopelessness of our situation.  The Law says that you are a poor miserable sinner, deserving nothing but death and eternal condemnation.

Such a message does not sit well with one who wants to be his/her own savior.  Such a message does not parallel the false hope preached so often today, that all you have to do is try harder, or “give your life to Jesus.”  The Word of God contrasts the “it is not so bad” mentality of today’s church, for faithful preaching consists in addressing the condition and not only the symptoms of sinners.  Only by doing so is the true proclamation of the Gospel clearly heard and believed.

Jesus came to save real sinners, not partial sinners (Luke 5:32; 1 Timothy 1:15)! Jesus died in order to save real sinners from real condemnation and hell.  And this is just what Jesus did, not to make the world a better place, but to give eternal life.

While many go on proclaiming a false gospel of earthly hope and worldly utopia, true preachers of Christ preach the sure and certain hope of heaven.  They teach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), for the very purpose of leading the hearers to Christ and to heaven.  They call sinners to turn from their evil ways and to believe the Good News of sins forgiven through faith in Christ Jesus.

Not all who hear this message appreciate it.  Many turn away from it.  Most reject it.  Such is the world in which we live.  But by God’s grace, there are also most certainly those who do hear, who do believe, and who do confess Jesus Christ to be Savior.  They know God’s Word when they hear it, for they are of God (John 8:47).  They hear Christ’s voice and follow Him (John 10:16, 27).  And they seek none other than the true doctrine, for in this true doctrine is true and everlasting life.  And of this doctrine they are not ashamed, for it is not their own, but God’s.  Thus do they boldly declare it, and of it are most sure!

Luther

“With Paul, therefore, we boldly and confidently pronounce a curse upon any doctrine that does not agree with ours.  We, too, seek by our preaching, not the praise of men or the favor of princes or of bishops but only the favor of God.  We preach His grace and gift alone, treading underfoot and condemning whatever is our own.  Therefore anyone who teaches something different or something contrary – we confidently declare that he was sent from the devil.” (Luther’s Lectures on Galatians, LW 26, p59).

Prayer: Gracious Father, you have given us Your holy Word that we believe it and boldly confess it.  Grant us not to be ashamed of what you say, nor to depart from it all of our days.  Forgive us our weaknesses, and bring us to firm confidence in Your doctrine and eternal life.  Amen.

“The Defender’s Guide for Life’s Toughest Questions”–some observations

The Defender’s Guide For Life’s Toughest Questions

(Ray Comfort)[1]

Some observations

Ray Comfort, in the preface of this book, writes, “Most of the questions and objections in this book come from those who call themselves ‘atheists.’  Many have placed their faith in erroneous information…and because of it have hardened themselves against God and Christianity (Romans 1).  They ask questions but don’t really want answers.  My hope is that you are open to reason, and that you will find that that the answers will give you another perspective” (7).

I agree with Comfort’s observation that many atheists have placed their faith in erroneous information.  The same, however, could be said of many groups, including some who call themselves Christians, for not all who call themselves Christians exclusively use the Bible as the “rule and norm” for faith and life.  Again, I agree that some atheists really don’t want answers, that is, the truth that the Bible provides.  Similarly, there are others who follow suite, not wanting the truth at all, but only evidence that seems to support their conclusions.   This applies not only to atheists, but to all people, including Christians as well.  None are immune to the deficiencies and limitations of human reason.  And none perfectly resist the temptation to defend only that which benefits oneself.

These are dangers for which all need to be aware—trusting erroneous information and not really wanting the truth.  These do not lead to honest and forthright investigation at all, but only intensify the divide between the two or more contrasting positions.   Incorrect information only leads further away from the truth and may further confuse the issues.  Not wanting the truth but only that which supports one’s own position really only demonstrates an unwillingness to consider the truth at all, not as anyone sees it, but as it is—the truth.

Such a comment certainly does assume that absolute truth does indeed exist.  However, truth exists, not because I or anyone else believes it to exist, but because truth is truth, regardless of my own presuppositions or assumptions.  In the words of Comfort, “unbelief or belief doesn’t negate reality” (p48).

John 3:16, for example, as all of Holy Scripture, is true, even if I don’t believe it.  Whether I believe or not doesn’t make something less true.  It only means that I don’t believe it.  I can believe that gravity doesn’t exist should I jump out of the plan while in the air, but that won’t at all change what is true, that gravity will result in my falling to the ground.

In the same way, the Bible is God’s Word and is therefore true, whether I believe it or not.  Only Christians take this truth seriously.  Others may joke about the Bible and act as if it means nothing at all, but their attitude does not change the true and faithful Word of God  (i.e. Psalm 119:89), nor what it is or what it says.

Comfort’s belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word is welcome and encouraging.  Christians can give reasonable explanations to the many questions and statements of the day as posed by atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and others.  They can do this, not only using their God given reasoning abilities, but Christians also and especially have the Word of God.  Christians can not only address faulty logic and false conclusions.  They can also say what God has said.

Should the “scientific evidence” seem to contradict the Word, Christians can rightly question the evidence and the assumptions held concerning the evidence, and therefore, get to the deeper conflict that the nonbeliever has with reference to sin and grace.

In five chapters, Comfort addresses these topics:

  1. Humanity: Rights and Suffering
  2. The Bible: Biblical and Theological Issues
  3. Science: Scientific Thought and Evolution
  4. Philosophy: Beliefs and Worldviews
  5. Religion: God and Atheism

Throughout these topics, Comfort often points to man’s inability to keep the law.  He exposes the error of false belief and seriousness of the human condition.  For the most part, Comfort does a fine job addressing many of the issues between the covers.

However, in certain responses, I believe that he could have answered more charitably.  In some places, he seems to write with a bit of sarcasm and/or what may sound as derision.  It seems to me that he does not entirely stick with the issues at hand.

Overall, I found this work to be of benefit for two primary reasons.  The first reason is that Comfort does present a number of arguments, comments, and questions by mostly nonChristians.  These are beneficial in that they present the Christian with a greater understanding of what is being said about Christianity and what Christians believe concerning matters of faith and life.  Secondly, Comfort can help Christians consider answers to the critics based on the Bible and sound reason.  Sound reason will not convert anyone, but it may give critics reason for considering their position.  God’s Word creates faith (Romans 10:17).  Man’s word does not.  Nevertheless, Christians are to use the gifts God has given them, in service to the Gospel, and directed by God’s Word.

Among the weaknesses of this work is the constant refrain of “if…then” statements.  Comfort is coming from a background that assumes sinners can “make a decision for Christ.”  This is what we call “Decision Theology,” and this book is loaded with phrases that place the burden of sinners in need of a Savior, not fully on Christ, but on themselves.  Comfort does indeed articulate the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, but in many instances, this is not as clear as it could be.

Though Comfort does indeed call for the sinner to repent, and though he does speak about the depth of sin, he doesn’t seem to go far enough, for he at least implies that man can somehow “choose God,” even in his sinful condition.  The Bible, however, indicates that man is much more corrupt than this, and must be completely born again, something that Comfort doesn’t adequately address (i.e. Genesis 6:5, 21; Psalm 14:1-3; 19:12; 51:3-5; Matthew 15:18-20; John 1:12-13; 3:3, 5-6;  Romans 3:10-20; 5:6-11; 7:24-25; 10:4, 14-17; 14:23; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Galatians 2:20-21; Hebrews 11:6)

Because of Comfort’s inconsistency about the depth of human sin and man’s corruption, he is unable to fully declare God’s grace in Christ.  He doesn’t rightly distinguish Law and Gospel throughout.  He therefore also fails to consistently articulate man’s salvation by God’s grace through faith (salvation, God’s grace, and even faith) as pure gift (i.e. Ephesians 2:8-9).[2]

This doctrine, that sinful man is saved only God’s grace in Christ through faith, is known as the doctrine of justification.  This doctrine teaches that man can do nothing for his salvation, that God has done it all in Christ through His death on the cross.  Salvation and God’s grace, and even faith, are fully gifts of God (as is Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

The doctrine of justification is objective, sure, and certain.  Anything of man, even any decisions or choices he makes, is uncertain and doubtful, whereas the things of God give only confidence and certainty.

Unbelievers, including atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and any others, will not know such certainty or believe God’s grace apart from Jesus Christ.  They will not believe the forgiveness of sins without the Holy Spirit.  Christians can address the faulty and limited logic of the naysayers.  They can give rational arguments for their understanding of the evidences.  But only God, by means of His Word, creates faith to believe that Word, even that Word which is now flesh, Jesus the Christ.  It is this Word, also, that God calls His people to speak consistently and truthfully throughout, as in Jeremiah, “He who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully” (Jeremiah 23:28).


[1] Ray Comfort, The Defender’s Guide For Life’s Toughest Questions (Green Forest, AK: Master Books), 2011.

[2] Cleary absent from this book is any reference to baptismal regeneration.  Comfort often confuses Law and Gospel, too.

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